In 1978—if you were hip (or unhip) enough to avoid disco—punk rock and heavy metal were creeping their way into the mainstream. Especially in Britain. That’s where the rock four-piece Girlschool got their start, releasing their first single “Take It All Away” that year, and landing an opening slot with Mötorhead on the band’s first major British tour.
Girlschool has gone on to release 13 records, including their latest, Guilty As Sin—fittingly out on this past Friday the 13th. The new album has the punk ’tude and the metal power of classic releases like 1981’s Hit And Run and their seminal 1980 debut Demolition.
Now some four decades later, Mötorhead and Girlschool are still at it, embarking on another European tour together. Of course, both bands have had to take hard looks at their own mortality. Girlschool lost a founding member, the blistering lead guitarist Kelly Johnson, to cancer in 2007. Lemmy is still God, but has dealt with health issues this year (original Mötorhead drummer Phil “Philthy Animal” also just died after a long illness). Rock and roll giveth and rock and roll taketh, but Girlschool carries on, and has done so in rock’s testosterone fog. Paste caught up with original guitarist and vocalist Kim McAuliffe to talk about staying healthy on the road, “Stayin’ Alive” and staying focused.
: As a woman in rock making your way in essentially a man’s world, did you have female role models?
Kim McAuliffe: It was so bloody long ago now since we started—37 years…I can’t believe I just said that—there weren’t that many female bands that were playing. Of course, we were aware of a band called Fanny from America, the Millington sisters. Our drummer knew about them, and she was really into them. They weren’t really heavy rock, but they were good. Then, of course, the first woman to really influence me, I suppose, was Suzi Quatro on Top of the Pops. The funny thing is we just shot a documentary for the BBC all about women in bands, and they included Fanny. So it was quite amazing really to be on the same program as them.
: Well, if anyone deserves to be part of the discussion on female bands, it’s you. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned over the last 40 years?
McAuliffe: Just do it if you love it. It’s become a way of life. I feel like I’ve been institutionalized almost [laughs]; because there’s nothing else I could do, is there really? Imagine if we all went for a proper job, they’d say, “What have you been doing for the last 37 years?” I’d go, “Well, I’ve been in a rock band.” And they’d say, “OK, byyyeee!”
: [Laughs] What do you think you would’ve done if you didn’t get into rock?
McAuliffe: Oh blimey, I really don’t know. I quite liked art and graphic design at the time. Then I also wanted to work in a zoo, working with animals, you know.
: Girlschool kind of lived simultaneously in the punk and metal scenes. What was your experience in those worlds?
McAuliffe: Well, when we first started out, of course, we were touring around the same time that punk was very big. We’d play rock clubs, and they’d think we were punk and hate us, and we’d play punk clubs, and they thought we were rock and hated us [laughs]. And we were like, “Bloody hell, well this isn’t very good.” [laughs] But we just carried on doing what we felt was right for us. And then, of course, lucky enough this little band called Mötorhead turned up, and we’d already recorded a single with a mate of ours, who had already put a single out with another punk band called the UK Subs, who were friends of ours. So we were all crossed up. We loved punk. The Sex Pistols’ Never Mind the Bullocks is probably one of the best albums, I think, ever recorded. It’s hardly a punk album, it’s a good rock album by the by. We were quite influenced by everything, really. Obviously, we grew up with Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple, but then, of course, we loved the Sex Pistols and the Damned and bands like that.
: Of course, Mötorhead was the epitome of punk rock and metal.
McAuliffe: So we recorded this single—of course we thought it was going to be all glamorous, but of course it wasn’t, because we didn’t have much money. We were in this dingy basement in Soho for an afternoon; and after we came blinking into the sunlight, and John Peel was standing at the top of the stairs. And we got chatty with him, and so he played our single, and it got quite a lot of recognition. And Lemmy heard it from Mötorhead. And, of course, at that time they were looking for a band to support for them on their first major British tour. We were, “Blimey, this band…this is what we’re like.” And, of course, the audiences took to us, as well. So they invited us on that, and the rest is history—that became the partnership that’s lasted till now.
: And you’re heading out with them again this year…
McAuliffe: Yeah, for their 40th anniversary tour. It’ll take us into 2016.
: Of course, Girlschool has a new record out as well. It’s been eight years!
McAuliffe: I know, I couldn’t believe it. People were telling me, and I thought it was only a few years back [laughs]. The record company management really decided it for us. They literally said, “You’re booked in on the blah, blah, blah, certain day…get on with it.” [laughs] I think that’s the best way for us to do stuff, otherwise we’ll just be, “Yeah, yeah, next week. Yeah, whatever.” [laughs]
: How did you approach this record?
McAuliffe: The record company wanted us to work with Chris Tsangarides this time around, who we had actually worked with—again, 30 years ago in the early ’80s—and he was like working back with Vic Maile (producer of 1981’s Hit and Run record). Very old-school, so very easy for us to slip back into again—just more rock and roll and raw, basically. And that suited us with these songs.
: Now I have to ask you, was the cover of “Stayin’ Alive” chosen as sort of a nod to the band’s longevity?
McAuliffe: Yeah, it seemed to work quite well for us in the end—it seemed to say everything about us, and the fact that the band is still here. Of course, sadly, our lead guitarist Kelly isn’t—we lost her.
: I was going to ask you about Kelly. I mean, aside from the sadness of losing her, how did her death affect you?
McAuliffe: Kelly and I grew up as sisters. When we formed Girlschool we were about 17, so we literally went through the whole thing together. Yeah, she went through hell at the end, to tell you the truth. And it was horrible. Horrible. She was such a force of nature. I mean I used to be amazed to be on stage with her. And when I listen back now the way she played was quite incredible really. She was great, our Kell. We miss her a lot, yeah.
: To use a cliché, it puts things in perspective.
McAuliffe: Oh God yes, it does. But it hasn’t really stopped us in our old age [laughs]. I’m still recovering from a party we had at Halloween. It was kind of a sendoff for this tour, because I’m not really back for bloody ages. I have to go on tour to get healthy. It’s the other way around now—we used to go on tour and be unhealthy and come back and recover [laughs]; now we have to go on tour to recover from being at home.